Canterbury Cathedral

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Canterbury Cathedral

The chances are that you will be visiting Canterbury on your way to Dover to catch the ferry to France. If so, you will have very little time, an hour at the most. At least you will be arriving early before any crowds. You need to do most of your commentary in advance. A short but judicious reading from the Canterbury Tales might be in order. The C15 cathedral tower Bell Harry is visible to the left of the motorway from a long way off. From the coach park (loos are nearby) it is a good 10 minute walk to the cathedral, which is clearly signposted. Opposite the coach park you should point out the ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey, his original monastic foundation from the early C7. On the left as you approach the surviving medieval walls is St. Martin's Church, thought to be the oldest parish church in England and where St. Augustine sometimes prayed. Walking through Canterbury to the cathedral down Burgate, the town is an odd mixture of medieval and Victorian buildings together with bland modern development, the result of bombing in WW II (1944) and subsequent insensitive planning. (The whole south side of the town was destroyed by German bombs but the cathedral was untouched.) At the top of Burgate you reach the lovely C16 Christ Church Gate decorated with coats-of-arms. This is the main entrance to the Cathedral Close. The view from Mercery Lane (nice shops and tea rooms if you have time) on to the gate and the towers of the cathedral behind is worth a stop for a photo.

Introduction  Canterbury Cathedral is the "mother church" of the worldwide Anglican Communion, catholic in doctrine but non-Roman in organisation. The Anglican Communion includes the U.S. Episcopal Church. The head of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose "seat" or throne is located behind the High Altar of the Cathedral. Since the Church of England is the "established" church in Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury has an important ceremonial function: he crowns the kings and queens of England.

How did Canterbury Cathedral become the 'first church' of England, and not, say, Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's in London? The answer goes back to the year 597, when Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to England as his representative. Augustine came to England, not to convert the native tribes (they were already practicing Celtic Christianity), but to introduce the Roman church organisation. Augustine won the favour of King Ethelbert, who ruled over the people of Kent - at the time, one of many separate kingdoms in England. Ethelbert gave Augustine the use of an old church building dating back to Roman times. Augustine rebuilt, enlarged, and dedicated this building in the year 602, and so Canterbury (where the building stood) became the Archbishop's church, and remains so to this day.

The evolution of the present Cathedral  In 1067, this original building was destroyed by fire, but an even larger church was built ten years later, and through additions, the handsome cathedral we see today began to take shape. The cathedral was given a huge boost by the popularity of Archbishop Thomas à Becket, saint and martyr, who was murdered right in the cathedral in 1170. No effort was spared to make the cathedral a worthy abode for his remains. (He is buried in the crypt.) Skilled engineers like William of Sens and William the Englishman used daring new techniques to make the interior of the cathedral high and graceful, its arches sweeping up to the heavens. Much of the stone for the building was shipped over from Caen in France. This Norman limestone is fine-grained and permits sharp lines. Such details, combined with its majestic proportions, make Canterbury one of Europe's most splendid Gothic churches, attracting visitors from all over the world. In 1179 King Louis VII of France journeyed to Canterbury to pray for his son's recovery from illness. The king left a jewel known as the Regale, at Becket's shrine: it's a ruby the size of an apricot.

The story of Thomas à Becket  Canterbury Cathedral holds a special place in the affections of Englishmen. To see why, recall the profound impact which the murder of Thomas à Becket had on English society. In 1170, Henry II, a Norman, was King of England. He had appointed his friend and government minister Thomas à Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. The story of how Thomas and King Henry came into bitter conflict is convoluted and complex, involving issues of international politicking and going to the heart of the contemporary debate raging about the supremacy of Church or State. In a nutshell Becket stood up vehemently for the independence of the Church from royal control. It is said that one evening, when he was in France, Henry was drinking with his knights and brooding over his quarrels with Becket. Henry lost his temper and blurted out: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Four of these knights, having other motives of their own for getting rid of Becket, chose to take Henry's words as an order to slay Becket. They travelled to Canterbury and stabbed the Archbishop right in the Cathedral. The murder outraged the citizens of England and the continent, and provoked the Pope into furious response. Henry was horrified at the outcome of his ill-considered outburst. He had to submit to a public flogging to try to atone for his sin. Remarkably soon afterwards, Thomas was declared a saint, and throngs of citizens began to make pilgrimages to the Saint's shrine at Canterbury. King Henry himself was one of them. Such pilgrimages became a characteristic part of English piety. Geoffrey Chaucer describes some of these pilgrims and the stories they told on the journey in his Canterbury Tales.

When you enter the Cathedral Close through Christ Church Gate you need to register the group at the office in the wall of the close to your right. They will give you a time to go in and a suggested walking tour to follow through the building. If anybody wants to take photos they have to pay a small fee for a permit. Rather than try to guide inside it is easier to give the group a brief rundown of the cathedral's highlights (the medieval stained glass, the site of St. Thomas' shrine and the Black Prince's Tomb) and arrange to meet them outside the shop at the west door.

Southwest Porch  This is the main entrance. Notice the richly carved Victorian figures over the door, many of them honouring nobles and churchmen associated with the history of England.

Inside the Nave  The cathedral is 556 ft long, the longest in Europe. The majestic columns of the nave date from the 1390s, and they create an impression of vast space and soaring height. Follow the map pasts the Baptismal Font. Note here the many memorials on the wall. Proceed to the Martyrdom.

Martyrdom  Here, on December 29, 1170, four of King Henry's knights (De Tracy, Fitzurse, Le Breton, and De Morville) forced their way into the Cathedral. After a brief quarrel with the Archbishop, they struck with their swords, one of them wounding Becket's skull with his blade. An inscription in the stone marks the place. We'll take a few minutes to walk out into the cloisters, the stone vaulting of which is emblazoned with coats-of-arms. Here the monks passed much of their time in study and contemplation. Proceed to the north aisle of the choir.

Stairs to the Undercroft or crypt  Parts of the present cathedral remain from the earlier churches which stood on the site. In 1888, a large skeleton was found down in the crypt, and much discussion has taken place over whether this was indeed Becket. Becket was a large man: 6 foot 2 inches, a giant by medieval standards.

Tomb of Archbishop Chichele  This archbishop died in 1443. His tomb shows him in splendid robes (above), and as a naked corpse lying on a shroud (below). At this point in the cathedral, note the change from Norman to Gothic arches. The Norman arches around us are massive and rounded. The Gothic arches back down the nave are slender and pointed on top. The stained-glass windows are presenting biblical stories. Continue past the Chapel of St. Andrew and up the steps.

Thomas à Becket Window (at the top of the steps)  This window, c.1250, is a portrait of St. Thomas. The window conveys something of the character of the man: a character that changed from a life of pleasure as the son of a merchant family to one of personal humility and asceticism. When Becket died, it was discovered that he had been wearing a horsehair shirt, infested with lice, under his garments. As archbishop, he won the respect of the people by giving away his rich clothing and other goods, devoting himself totally to the defence of the church against the crown. (How much of this was superficial and the invention of Church propagandists remains today a hotly contested question.)

Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor (also called the Henry IV Chantry)  This side chapel honours the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who died one year before the Battle of Hastings established Norman rule. Edward was declared a Saint after his death for his piety and devotion to the church. He built the original Westminster Abbey in London, and is buried there. This chapel is a chantry chapel for the adjacent tomb of King Henry IV.

Trinity Chapel (behind the high altar)  This is sometimes called St. Thomas Chapel, and it is the goal of every pilgrim to Canterbury, past and present, since it held the Shrine of St. Thomas, dazzling with gold and precious stones. His relics were venerated for their miracle-working powers, and attracted legions of people to the Shrine for healing. You can spot depressions in the pavement, worn by the knees of these countless pilgrims. The Shrine used to stand in the centre of the chapel, where there is only empty space today. The Shrine was dismantled and the gems looted by King Henry VIII in 1538, as part of his attack on the recently martyred Thomas More.

The Miracle Windows  The designs depict scenes from the life and miracles of St. Thomas à Becket. The name "miracle" refers, not to the windows themselves, but to the wonders associated with Becket after his death.

The Corona  The throne at the far end of this chapel is known as St. Augustine's Chair, a copy of the one actually used by St. Augustine. This marble seat was made from three stones in about 1210, and has been used since that time for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Just above the chair is the Corona Window, one of the finest examples of stained glass anywhere in England. The "Corona" in the name of this chapel comes from the crown that was shown to adoring pilgrims: the crown was a jewelled reliquary containing a lock of Becket's hair.

Tomb of the Black Prince  This tomb in the form of a copper effigy, like others near it, faces in towards Trinity Chapel, but you can see the carvings on the back of it. The Black Prince was the eldest son of King Edward III, and the hero of the wars against the French in the 14th century. Directly across from this tomb, on the other side of Trinity Chapel, is the tomb of King Henry IV, the only King of England to be buried in Canterbury Cathedral. (Many of the others are buried in Westminster Abbey.)

Pilgrims' Stairs  Once again you can see the hollows worn in the stone by pilgrims making their way up the steps to Trinity Chapel. Proceed now to the SE transept.

Bossanyi Windows  The SE transept contains the chapels of St. John the Evangelist and St. Gregory. But its most striking feature is the series of modern stained-glass windows. Part of the Cathedral glass was damaged in an air raid in June 1942, and the windows had to be replaced. Erwin Bossanyi designed the new windows, which were completed in 1960. Themes like Peace, Love, and Hope are highlighted, instead of the traditional lives of saints.

Bell Harry Tower  Standing at the top of the steps, and looking up and slightly left, you see the impressive C14 stone arch which divides the nave from the Choir. Now look straight up, and you'll see some of the most beautiful fan vaulting in Europe. This tall interior shaft is known as the Bell Harry Tower, supported by four massive columns. The tower extends upward beyond the roofline of the nave, and forms the imposing central tower that identifies the cathedral from the outside.

Some famous Canterbury residents and natives:
Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) playwright, Faust, contemporary of Shakespeare.
Sir Thomas More's Head, resting in St. Dunstan's Church after being separated from his body in the Tower of London in 1535.

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